Zorro was created in 1919 by American pulp writer Johnston McCulley. The character is one of the first masked Vigilantes with dual identities and is the precursor to our modern day superheroes. In most versions, Don Diego de la Vega (sometimes Don Diego Vega) is the only son of Don Alejandro de la Vega, the richest landowner in California. Diego is called back home from university in Spain (where he learned most of his fighting skills) by his father when California is taken over by an oppressive dictator. To protect his father Diego dons a black outfit including cape, sombrero cordobès, and a mask. His main weapon is a rapier which he expertly and often used to fight injustice, leaving his signature mark (a “Z”) behind. To avert suspicion that he could be Zorro, Diego acted cowardly and foppish while Zorro was strong and dashing. Due to his gallant, cunning and clever ways of embarrassing the authorities, the towns folk call him “El Zorro” which is Spanish for “The Fox”.
The original 1919 novel was meant to be a stand-alone story, but after the success of the 1920 film starring Douglas Fairbanks, McCulley went on to write five serialized stories and 57 short stories. The character has stared in over 40 films and 10 TV series, including the 1957 – 59 Disney production starring Guy Williams (Professor John Robinson of Lost in Space). There were also multiple audio/radio dramas, comic books and strips, stage productions (including a musical) and video games.
Zorro is like Robin Hood where he foils the plans of the rich to benefit the poor and indigenous people of California. The character differs from Robin Hood as he creates a dual identity to protect his family and wears a mask to hide his face. This makes him one of the very first masked Vigilantes inspiring several other pulp fiction characters. Batman in particular drawing close parallels.
As a child I use to watch the black and white movie serials of Zorro on PBS. He became a favorite of mine. The classic tale of fighting oppression masked and in costume connected with me on a near spiritual level. I even loved the parody Zorro: The Gay Blade. Played by George Hamilton, Diego is injured while jumping out a window and temporarily passes the mantel of Zorro to his gay brother Ramon “Bunny”. Ramon puts his own colorful touches onto the character. The writing was clever and I still quote from this movie. I was 12 and struggling with my sexuality, and as cliché as the portrayal was of a gay man and a bit condescending, it was still a change from homosexuals being portrayed as villains or minor supporting characters in film. I am also a fan of the 1998 film, “The Mask of Zorro” starring Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins. With a twist on the character, Diego (Hopkins) is now an old man, who trains Alejandro Murietta (Banderas) to take over the mask of Zorro. Also of note is the 1974 television movie, The Mark of Zorro, Starring Frank Langella and Ricardo Montablan. This version follows the more traditional storyline but is marked by superb performances by Langella as Diego and Montablan as Captain Esteban Montenegro.
The multitude of productions in all sorts of media is vast and each brings and adds something special to the mythos that defines the character, and no matter which version you like, Zorro is a true hero of the people fighting corrupt government officials with sensational swashbuckling sword play!